What’s the Big Idea? An Introduction to Architecture

Uncover the basic ruling principles of architecture, its importance to history, and how we define changes in style and form.

What is Architecture?

Architecture is the art or practice of designing and building structures. The term ‘architecture’ can cover all aspects of a building, from planning and design to the finished piece. It also incorporates the interior and exterior of a building and both structural and decorative elements. From the overall footprint or layout of a building down to the single brick, architectural study observes how all pieces of a structure come together.

Architecture looks at both the functionality of a building and its aesthetic or artistic qualities. When we discuss architecture, the topic of style, school, or movement is often brought into consideration. Over the course of history, architectural styles have changed greatly, sometimes striking out in entirely new directions, but more often drawing inspiration from the past. A broad study of architectural movements will help us understand the similarities and differences found in major architectural styles over the millennia.

History of Architecture

Göbekli Tepe, a former temple site in Southeastern Turkey, is the oldest recorded building site known today, with evidence from the site dated to 9500-8000 BCE. In the broadest sense, therefore, we have over 10,000 years of architectural history. Over time, many different styles and design movements have come and gone and tracking these movements is an important aspect of architectural study.

However, the field of architecture also has its own internal history. Many of history’s greatest thinkers have written on the philosophy of architecture or have been architects themselves. Indeed, the earliest surviving written work on architecture is De architectura, written by Vitruvius in the 1st century – but even Vitruvius cites earlier texts that are now lost. From Plato to Foucault, many philosophers have written treatises on architecture, and artists from Michelangelo and DaVinci to contemporary names such as Anish Kapoor and Frank Gehry have lent their talents to architectural design.

Architecture & Culture

Architecture is an important component for understanding global history, particularly in regard to the studies of cultural anthropology and archaeology. Much can be learned about a people’s resources, technological capabilities, influences and priorities from the types of buildings they built, the materials they used, and even the design and positioning of the buildings.

For many ancient cultures around the world, architectural ruins are some of the last remaining vestiges of entire people groups. Being able to extrapolate cultural information from prehistoric and ancient architectural sites is critically important; however, it does not mean that this kind of deduction is limited to long-gone people groups. To the present day, historians are able to track important cultural movements through style, scale, and investment in materials and decoration. Not only that, but studying advancements in technology and building systems can reveal much about today’s culture.

Basic Qualities: Durability

In De architectura, Vitruvius lays out 3 key principles that any good building should satisfy: firmitas (firmness), utilitas (commodity), and venustas (delight). In modern architecture, the terms have been slightly updated to durability, functionality/utility, and beauty; these ideals continue to play an important role in architectural design and construction.

According to Vitruvius, when it comes to good architecture, a building must first and foremost be durable. That is, it should work as a building. A durable structure should be able to stand against the elements and should remain in good condition for a long time. As such, it should have a strong foundation and be well-designed to hold together without shifting or cracking. While this seems simple enough, large structures require a great deal of engineering to be safe and durable. A good architect must be knowledgeable not only in aesthetics but must also understand how to design a ‘firm’ structure.

Basic Qualities: Functionality

The 2nd key principle for good architecture is functionality. In other words, a building should be suitable for the purpose for which it is created.

On one level, functionality is practical: it deals with layout and usability. A school needs classrooms, while a theater needs a stage. However, architects also have to consider more detailed needs like what happens in a school when all the classes are let out simultaneously, are the hallways large enough? Are there intersections that may cause congestion? For a theater, one may need to address how sound carries or how actors are able to move behind the scenes.

There are also more abstract functionalities that a building may need to meet. For example, a cathedral may need to not only house its parishioners but also inspire them. Or a government building may need to communicate solidity and longevity.

Basic Qualities: Beauty

The 3rd key principle is beauty, in other words, a well-built building should be aesthetically pleasing. However, beauty is subjective: what one person considers beautiful may be an eyesore to someone else.

Architectural movements are often based largely on the aesthetics of buildings. While other factors come into play, such as materials and available technology and engineering knowledge, how buildings look often has a large impact on a given architectural movement and its place in history.

Shifting priorities and ideas of beauty are key factors in the transitions between movements. For example, the simplicity of Neoclassicism was a direct response to the overly decorative Renaissance and Baroque styles. Later, Postmodernism, with its bright campy style, arose to counter the minimalism of Modernism. While beauty should be a consideration for any good architectural project, just what beauty is will continue to be under debate.

Basic Qualities: Harmony

Ultimately, an important aspect of good architecture is how the 3 key principles of durability, functionality, and beauty work together. Architectural projects fail when functionality or longevity are sacrificed for beauty, or vice versa. It is the careful balance and harmony of these various qualities that will make an architectural project a success. The necessity for harmony means that a good architect must also be knowledgeable about all 3 aspects of architecture and needs to be able to envision how these qualities will work together in a finished building. This requires a great deal of knowledge and skill.

In addition to the key principles, a structure should also be constructed in harmony with the surrounding geography. Geography has an effect on durability, functionality, and beauty. As such, an architect must consider climate, humidity, and even the type of ground. For reasons of both functionality and aesthetics, how a building fits into its surroundings is vitally important.

Orders & Movements

Throughout history, there have been many different styles of architecture, which are divided into movements and orders. The earliest known structures were of ‘vernacular’ architecture, homes and other buildings created out of a combination of need and means, or access to materials. Across the world, ‘vernacular’ can refer to log cabins, thatch-roofed huts, yurts, igloos, and more, depending on the location.

There are also many types of prehistoric architecture, where existing ruins suggest the creation of collective living spaces such as towns or cities.

Generally speaking, the major architectural movements begin with ancient architectural styles for which we still have enough existing structures to begin to understand their stylistic choices.

Ancient styles are divided into ‘orders,’ while later shifts are usually designated as ‘movements.’ Movements can be defined by time period, location, dominant style, philosophy, resources and materials, or other factors. Often it is a combination of these. A movement may also have subgroups or counter-movements that coalesce around particular differences within the general movement.

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